This is my last review for the Man Asian Literary Prize Shadow Jury – I know I said I’d review The Colonel, but I gave up halfway through, and have no desire to power my way through the rest of it, particularly since I now don’t have to. But yes, Rebirth. This has been comically difficult to source, since it’s not published outside of India, and Penguin India were less than forthcoming about helping us out. But here it is!
Kaberi is pregnant. Over nine months, she tells us of her life before and during this experience. She tells of her childhood friend Joya, always so headstrong and enthusiastic. She tells of her family, still living in the country, far away from her new life in Bangalore. She tells of her new friends, willing to help her out, but so caught up in their own affairs they often don’t notice when she doesn’t ask. And she tells of her husband, the father of her child, the man she was forced to marry. The man who hits her.
The role of women in the land of fiction has lately become something of a hotly contested debate in Australia, for those playing overseas. And I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this suggestion of “women’s fiction” – that there are some books written for women, as though men have no interest in books about women, and what it means to be a woman.
Which is, you know, complete bullshit. It makes about as much sense as saying women don’t read novels written by men, because they don’t want to read about what men think. But the stigma remains. We celebrate so many male authors for their insight into what it means to be a man, what masculinity means, and how one fits into or is forced outside of these ideals. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – all of these authors have been (rightly) celebrated for their portrayal of masculinity in the twentieth century. But there does seem to be something of a dearth of female writers that are celebrated for their exploration of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be “feminine.” And that is why Rebirth interested me in so many ways, and why I enjoyed reading it.
This is a “woman’s book,” in the sense that it deals with something no man can ever understand, no matter how much we try – being pregnant. Carrying a child within you for nine months, and how that affects your own values, morality and world view – this is something I am never going to experience, even if I really want to. So from that perspective, yes, this is an important and revelatory novel. I’m pleased, too, that there’s a sense of universality here – though there are touches of Indian culture, particularly the arranged marriage situation, having children is not an exclusively Indian past-time. Neither is domestic violence, and bad marriages.
On the downside, I don’t think Barua gives it the kind of punch I personally look for in my reading. Perhaps because I tend to find passive protagonists frustrating in their inability to escape the shackles that bind them, so too I found Kaberi something of a wet blanket. This is (mostly) made up by the end, as she finds a way to live without her husband. I was particularly pleased that Barua didn’t take the easy route, and have disbelieving parents and friends on the domestic violence front. It was a pleasant change to see Kaberi’s friends and family believe her, and take steps to help her.
Ironically, perhaps, considering her violent marriage, there is a sense of calmness and serenity in Kaberi’s world view. Her language is never strong, never sharp, rarely angry. It would be easy to say this is a feminine way of writing, but I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Rebirth is a deeply introspective novel – it is a perfect example of how to best use the first person voice. Just as Kaberi herself is cool, calm and collected, so too are her thoughts, and therefore, language. There is, of course, another layer to this interior monologue in the truest sense of the word – she is narrating not to us, but to the unborn child within her. Perhaps this, too, connects to the language choice – one is not likely to yell or scream at a newborn.
Rebirth is not perfect by any means. The supporting cast is almost uniformly more interesting than the narrator, and it feels too short and slight to have any kind of major impact. But it’s a solid debut, and marks Barua out as an author who is willing to tackle issues that are not fully explored in what might be described as mainstream literature.